Evolution / Fiction

Short Story: The Last Man

clock-face-large-poster

 

“We must remember that progress is no invariable rule.”

-Darwin

 

“Here are the latest figures, Lewis.  They look promising.”  Dr. Lewis Friedman lifted his eyes from his work to address the female speaker.

“Thank you, Sara,” he replied, accepting a green folder of documents from a young woman in a lab coat.  He settled back into his deep, leather-upholstered chair and began sifting through the pages of data.  “These are from this morning?” he asked.  “Impressive.”

Dr. Sara Lincoln took the only other seat in the cramped office, a mid-century style armchair across from Friedman’s worn pine desk.  Three of the four walls of the windowless room were covered, floor to ceiling, with shelves crammed with books, journals, and half-century-old typed manuscripts.  It smelled of aging paper.

“Are we sure about these numbers?” Friedman said after a moment of reading.  “You’ve checked them?”  He studied his partner, a thirty-six year old biologist, for indications of uncertainty.

“I’ve personally reviewed them all,” Lincoln said, grinning.  “Everything’s accurate.  It’s astonishing.”

It was astonishing, Friedman thought, returning to the pages.  Only six weeks into testing and here was the evidence they sought.  Even in private moments of optimism he had never imagined anything quite this spectacular.

“We should file the request to proceed with a human trial immediately,” Lincoln said with conviction.

Dr. Friedman paused.  She was right, of course, they should pursue testing on a human subject; it was the next logical step.   But he could not help but sense that they stood at a critical juncture that demanded great care on their behalf.   Once committed to human testing they could never reverse course, never again return to their former state of ignorance.  But why should they want to? he wondered.  Why stall the inexorable advance of science?

He lifted an ivory-colored phone receiver from its cradle on the desk, placed it to his ear, and dialed the university’s dean of biology.

     ***

            The previous six months had passed in a frenzy of excitement.  The laboratory, which normally staffed three principle scientists and two graduate assistants, had swelled to more than ten full-time researchers.  Friedman had practically taken up permanent residence in the lab and slept sparingly, when time permitted, in his oversized desk chair.  As the senior staff biologist he still performed much of the crucial lab work himself, but he was also responsible for managing the lab’s unwieldy group of enthusiastic scientists, many of whom had come from other universities and research centers around the world.  He deplored performing these mundane administrative tasks and delegated as much responsibility to Lincoln as his conscious permitted.  She proved a willing, capable volunteer, devising work schedules, stocking supplies, and maintaining overall order.  But the magnitude of their discovery and its potential to alter the course of human history was quickly becoming more than either of them could neatly manage.

Even on the day of the breakthrough he had harbored misgivings.  In that initial trial the team had subjected a simple unicellular bacteria to what subsequently became known as the Friedman-Lincoln Device, or LFD.  After twenty-four minutes within the device’s core, the specimen was extracted and carefully analyzed.  It was immediately clear that they had achieved something remarkable.  Over the course of the following days Lincoln, Friedman, and a handful of other scientists confirmed their unlikely hypothesis: they had successfully propelled a species forward in its evolutionary time-line by many millions of years, so that what began as a single-celled organism was now a vastly more complex new species.  By learning to artificially induce the process of natural selection they had created an evolutionary time machine.  The implications were staggering and Friedman had grappled to comprehend the scope of their achievement.

“Ok, so what are we certain of,” he had asked during a food break in the university’s cafeteria.  It was early on the morning after the experiment, still dark outside.  The empty cafeteria was awash with yellow fluorescent lighting.  “What can we establish definitively?”

Lincoln had been less introspective at that hour.  She spoke casually as she scooped a mass of scrambled eggs onto her plate and moved down the line toward the sausage: “We know that the machine produces the most probable outcome of natural selection, right?  We know that our particular trial prokaryote will evolve into a highly sophisticated heterotrophic eukaryote.”

“Yes, but how do we demonstrate conclusively that it’s not a random mutation, but the necessary result of natural selection?  How do we prove it?”  Friedman anticipated an onslaught of skepticism and it was essential to him that they establish with certainty what the machine had accomplished.

“Easy,” she replied.  “We show the world that it’s simply a question of unlocking the latent potential of DNA, of decoding the millions of possible adaptations for a species and executing the most probable, most elegant solution given the constraints.  Let the numbers speak for themselves,” she had said, “There is a 97.24 percent chance that selection, given the time, will yield our exact test results.” He had known this already, of course, but it had helped to hear it repeated back to him.

Their method was, despite its groundbreaking capability, quite straightforward.  The science was well established and routinely applied in other fields of medicine and research.  In building the device they had merely combined existing technologies together in an original configuration to achieve striking results.  But Friedman could not help but wonder how the world would react to such a machine, or whether people were ready to learn how dramatically evolution would change life on the planet.  Right from the very beginning he had felt a tinge of uncertainty.

 ***

            The dean of biology came quickly from his office across campus and entered the lab flush with excitement.  Dean Charles Metzer was typically a cautious man, but after reviewing the team’s latest reports he readily agreed to support their request for human testing.

“So the primate has responded better than expected?” he asked, grinning.  “Can we see her?”

“I think so,” answered Friedman.  “Sara, would you like to take Charles to see Shelly?”

Shelly was the university’s four-year-old chimpanzee.  Six weeks ago the team had modified the LFD to accommodate a larger specimen and selected Shelly as its first mammalian test subject.  Friedman had only that morning received extensive lab data confirming Shelly’s remarkable progress. It was the decisive proof they needed to move forward.

“Follow me,” Sara said to Charles with a nod, and she turned toward the stairs leading down to the lab’s lower level.  Most of the lab’s equipment was in the basement, including the LFD, which occupied a small room of its own.   The lab – a rectangular space about the length of a bowling alley – was quiet at this hour; only the speech pathologists were working.  As Metzer and Lincoln made their way to the back of the narrow room they passed various work stations and specialized test equipment before coming within earshot of what sounded like an elementary grammar lesson.

“Remember,” a woman was saying, “a linking verb tells us what something is, was, or will be.  Now, can you circle the linking verbs in these sentences, Shelly?”

As the dean and Lincoln stepped into view a peculiar looking child dressed in poorly fitting trousers and a pink polo shirt reached out and took a dry erase marker from a kneeling woman’s outstretched hand and walked to a whiteboard on the wall.  There on the board were written five sentences, some of which featured active verbs, some linking verbs, and others both.  The child, whom Dean Metzer now, to his astonishment, recognized as the chimpanzee Shelly, began to read the sentences aloud.  The voice was eerily familiar: coarse, like a heavy smoker’s, or like someone’s suffering from a debilitating cold.

“The cars will be racing tomorrow.  The red car drives the fastest.  If the blue car wins, it will be the first time,” the voice said, slowly and with effort.  After a moment’s hesitation, Shelly began circling words on the board.

“Very good, Shelly!  Very good!”  The woman giving the lesson rose to greet the visitors.

“Dean Metzer you know Dr. Debby Kimble, our head linguist,” Lincoln offered.  The two shook hands.

“This is remarkable,” said Metzer.  Shelly began to play with a set of colored markers and paper.  “How long has she been reading and writing?”

“About three weeks,” answered Kimble.  “We’ve covered so much ground so quickly.  Obviously she’s progressing faster than her human counterparts.  I estimate she’s already performing at a fifth-grade level of reading proficiency.”

“And the latest brain activity measurements confirm a tremendous capacity for language skills, as well as advanced abstract reasoning and artistic capabilities,” Lincoln observed.

It wasn’t clear whether the dean was listening.  He stared intently at Shelly as she drew a simple line sketch of what appeared to be a horse or a cow.  She stood maybe three feet tall and very erect for a chimpanzee.  Gone were the characteristic hunch, the signature snout and protruding mouth, the large ears and heavy brow.  Most striking of all was the absence of hair; Shelly was almost completely hairless save the fair, shoulder length brown hair atop her head.  Her skin, though relatively even and lightly complected for a chimpanzee, was still tough and dry.  While she hardly resembled a normal, healthy child, she easily passed for a badly defective one.

“It’s time to call the press,” the dean said, almost to himself.

 ***

            Friedman had dreaded this moment.  Up until that point the team had enjoyed relative anonymity, with all staff members sworn to strict confidentiality. He appreciated the dean’s desire to share their success with the world, but worried that the resulting scrutiny might hinder their ongoing research.  Metzer hoped that by going public they might raise additional funds, maybe even secure another federal grant, but Friedman felt certain that the attention would only jeopardize their application for human testing.  People were bound to react emotionally to news that science could now peer forward into their evolutionary future, Friedman reasoned, and he expected heavy resistance from religious organizations and other conservative factions.  The team, however, did not share his reservations.  They gathered in the biology department’s conference room to discuss the issue.

“I think the world deserves to know,” said Dr. Dean Sterling, the lab’s foremost genetic expert.  “We can’t keep something like this a secret for long.  It’s not our achievement, anymore, it’s science’s.”  Dr. Sterling, now in his early seventies, was prone to making such grandiose statements.

“He’s right.  It’s gotten too big to keep under wraps, Lewis,” Lincoln coaxed.  “I’m worried that the longer we put it off, the worse we’ll look in the end.”

Doctor Kimble spoke next: “The recognition will only spark global support for our efforts.  We’ve done nothing wrong, broken no ethical standards or professional codes of conduct.  Why wait?”

“I know, Debby, but aren’t any of you concerned with how news of our discovery might shock the public?” Friedman said.  “A significant percentage of the population still rejects evolution’s account of biological diversity.  What will they do when we march a monkey out onto stage who conclusively establishes our genetic ancestry, who speaks English, and draws pictures?  I’m expecting riots.”

“That’s hardly our problem, Lewis,” said Dean Metzer.  “Our job is to back up our claims with solid science.  Sara assures me we can do that.  To delay going public any longer would be unethical.  I’ve spoken with the university’s board and President Wimbley, all of whom support my decision to hold a press conference here on campus Monday morning.  Shelly should be made available for a brief time, if only to dispel any doubt of our accomplishments.”  The dean’s orders had the air of a final pronouncement on the matter and no one challenged him further.

 ***

            The following Monday morning Friedman found himself seated at a rectangular table atop the university’s auditorium stage facing a dozen or so media personnel.  On his left sat Lincoln, who looked unusually well groomed, with her hair done up and out of her face.  To his right sat a beaming Metzer with a cluster of microphones positioned in front of him.  Beyond Metzer sat Kimble, and then Sterling.  Behind the panel of scientists someone had erected a large cardboard backdrop bearing the university’s navy logo.

Blinking into the video camera lights, Friedman surveyed the media.  No one seemed particularly glad to be there.  He wondered how much they knew.

“Alright I’d like to begin, if we could,” started Metzer, his voice booming through the auditorium’s PA system.  “We won’t take up too much of your time this morning,” he said with a wry smile.  The media shuffled into the front row of seats or took up positions behind various video cameras on tripods.  Metzer continued:

“We are here to announce a breakthrough achievement in genetic science, a discovery that has far reaching implications for all life on our planet.  Over the last year a small team of biologists, geneticists, and evolutionary scientists have identified the biological mechanisms responsible for evolutionary mutation.   Furthermore, they have discovered the technological means to initiate evolution’s transmutative powers at will through a device constructed here in the university’s laboratory.  This machine is capable of accelerating the evolutionary process by many millions of years without harming the test subject and replicates the process of natural selection almost exactly.  After a series of successful trials on microorganisms and small invertebrates, the team graduated on to primate testing.  I am pleased to announce that those trials, too, were an utter success.  I am, therefore, honored to introduce the latest product of our achievement, the chimpanzee Shelly.”

On cue, one of Shelly’s handlers led the chimp out onto the stage.  Shelly wore tan pants and a white cotton button-down shirt purchased from a fashionable women’s retailer.  From a distance she resembled a freakishly stout parochial school student.   She initially appeared confused by the spectators and briefly turned her eyes away from the camera lights, but once the pair reached center-stage Shelly managed to bravely face the audience.  She spoke to them in her distinct, raspy voice: “Hello,” she said, “I am Shelly.  I am a four-year-old chimpanzee.  I’m pleased to meet you.”

Silence.

Whatever reaction Metzer had hoped for, he didn’t get it.  The media delegation frowned and turned to one another in confusion.  Friedman ran a hand over his face in exasperation; he had worried it might go something like this.  Nonplussed, Metzer took several moments to recover his composure.

“Perhaps I haven’t been clear,” he said indignantly.  “Ladies and gentleman, we have successfully mutated a chimpanzee into a fledgling Homo sapiens.  This creature bridges the gap between the lesser primates and mankind.  She is capable of advanced abstract and critical thinking, displays fine motor skills, possesses a tremendous artistic aptitude, and just introduced herself in perfect English.  She is the greatest achievement science has ever made.”

Slowly, Friedman could see Metzer’s words take effect.  A murmur broke out among the visitors. Several of the reporters rose to their feet and approached the stage to get a closer look.  Others urgently began placing phone calls.  For the jaded journalists, what was only seconds ago a routine assignment suddenly became newsworthy.  Metzer continued:

“Now, we’re passing around a publication that carefully documents the science behind Shelly’s transformation…” but he was interrupted by a barrage of questions by the now eager press corps.

“Is this conclusive proof that man evolved from apes?”

“Can the monkey mate with humans?”

“If she’s human, is she entitled to legal rights?”

“Does this discovery finally end the debate over religion?”

Metzer held up both hands.  “Please, please,” he began, “Our staff will be happy to answer your questions, one at a time.  Yes, you,” he pointed to a female reporter.

“Are there plans to put a human in your device?”

“Yes,” Metzer answered cheerfully.  “And we are happy to announce that in two months time we will hold another press conference to reveal the results of that first human trial.”

Friedman shot a terrified glance at Lincoln.

“Did you know anything about this?” he whispered.

“No, nothing.  He’s lost his mind.  We don’t even have approval.”

***

            The questions continued for another two hours with a growing number of journalists, national news reporters, and cameramen arriving to take part.  The staff did their best to answer the questions, but few were related to science.  The press preferred to speculate on the fantastic possibilities of human evolution.  Friedman could only, like them, speculate and offer cautious responses.  At noon Metzer adjourned the conference for lunch but offered the media continued use of the auditorium as a base of operations.  Over the next two months their numbers continued to swell and their presence on campus became a permanent, disruptive fixture.

 ***

            Overnight word of the discovery spread across the international news media.  The major newspapers ran cover stories while prestigious scientific journals printed detailed studies of Shelly’s mutant anatomy and the mechanics of the Lincoln-Friedman Device.  Shelly was unanimously hailed as the greatest discovery since the theory of relativity, and was vaunted as a complete validation of Darwin’s principles on the descent of man.  Requests for interviews streamed into the dean’s office, many of which Metzer happily accepted.  More reluctant than Metzer to entertain the press, the staff was hounded by the media on their occasional trips off campus.  Security was increased in response to threats by ultra-conservative elements that protested daily on the university grounds.  In short, the situation had become something of a sensation.

Wired magazine ran a particularly provocative cover story entitled, “The Future You,” featuring contributions and analysis from the world’s leading religious leaders, cultural critics and scientists.  The cover bore a familiar illustration depicting the evolutionary progress of an ape into a human, with primitive man slowly evolving from prehistoric monkey on the left into a fully developed modern human on the right.  In this variation, however, a question mark represented the terminal stage of humankind’s evolutionary development.

In the weeks after the press conference the media’s attention began to shift away from Shelly to consider just how the new human animal might look and behave.  It was a turn that, much to Friedman’s surprise, bode well for the team.  The widespread curiosity piqued by the media exerted a positive influence on the regulatory officials responsible for authorizing the human testing.  Without even really pleading their case the request was granted.  Now began the debate over who would receive the honor of becoming the world’s most biologically advanced human being.

 ***

            Metzer called the staff together for a meeting in the conference room.

“I’ve given a good deal of thought as to how we should go about selecting a human candidate for testing,” Metzer said.  “As you all know, the university board and I have the final say in the matter, but I thought I should include you as a professional courtesy.  It has occurred to me that the person should come from within the university system itself and should be a representative of the scientific community from which this project emerged.  Secondly, I think it highly important that the person be trained in biology so that they may capitalize on this extraordinary opportunity and deliver astute, scientifically accurate observations of their experience.  Lastly, I’m convinced it should be someone of authority who can take responsibility for the personal risk to body and mind.  I think you will all agree that, in light of these criteria, no one is better suited for the job than me.”

The team stared blankly.

“Look Charles,” Friedman demanded.  “I cannot allow you to hijack our work to promote your career.  You’re sixty-four years old, for god’s sake.  You have no business jeopardizing the project to fulfill your celebrity ambition.”

“We have no idea how the process will affect a middle-aged adult,” Lincoln reasoned.  “All of our projections are based on a thirty-something year old subject.  It’s needlessly rash to introduce new variables at this stage.”

“I appreciate your concerns,” Metzer answered calmly, raising two hands and cocking his head slightly.  “But I’m in perfect health, single, and without extended family.  I’m quite sure you can recalculate the numbers, Dr. Lincoln.  The decision has, in fact, already been made.  I’d merely hoped that by reasoning with you I could win your approval.”

Friedman got up and left the conference room, his face flush with anger.  How dare he? he thought.  It was grotesquely conceited to exploit science for personal gain.  And for the board to back him?  Outrageous.

Lincoln followed him out the double doors of the biology building and into the morning sunshine.  She watched him pace on the freshly mowed lawn a moment before speaking.

“As bad as it is, it doesn’t change the fact that what we’re doing here is groundbreaking science,” she said.

“I know, but he’s ruining it for me,” Friedman answered.  “We’re doing all the work and he gets to be the eighth wonder of the world.”

“For all we know he’ll evolve into a hideous winged creature without any semblance of humanity.  Sounds more like a curse than a privilege.”

“That’s what’s so disgusting.  He hasn’t given any thought to what he’ll become.  He’s so enamored with the science that he’s become irrational.”

“Like it or not, we have no choice,” said Lincoln.  “In four weeks we’re expected to deliver a miracle of human evolution.  There’s no time to fight the board on this.”

Friedman sighed and looked off toward the horizon. He spotted the 18th century bell tower on the other end of campus and, squinting, could just make out the position of the giant hands on the worn clock face.

“I know,” he said with resignation, “but I’ll take no responsibility for what happens.”

***

            On the morning of the trial Friedman tried to forget Metzer altogether.  This was difficult, as the dean insisted on delivering occasional speeches and making grand gestures.  He recited from memory a passage from Wordworth’s Prelude, though it bore little relevance to the trial and was met with confusion and silence by everyone.

Metzer was in an elated mood.  He practically danced about as the team performed a final evaluation and prep.  He was courteous and ingratiating, even joking as they fitted him with monitoring instruments on sensitive locations of his body.  One got the impression that he had waited his whole life for just such an opportunity.

Shortly before the trial commenced Metzer insisted on a moment of silent prayer, an act completely at odds with his avowed atheism.  But the somber religious observance heightened the impression that Metzer, giving himself completely to the cause, was a martyr to science and worthy of solemn respect.  Friedman was inconsolable.

It had been unanimously agreed upon that the trial should be conducted in private, without the press, and that the results briefly studied before being publicized.  But Metzer’s deadline made it almost impossible for any serious work to be done before the team must present its findings.  His confidence in the trial’s outcome was complete: Metzer fully expected to emerge changed, but unharmed.  With the board’s backing and the support of the project’s major financiers, the team had no choice but to carry out the whole ordeal according to Metzer’s wishes.

The proud test subject offered a final, insincere flourish just before the entering the LDF chamber.

“If I should not survive the procedure, I would like my remains buried beside those of Shelly’s,” he said.  “We are, after all, kindred beings, and I would be honored to reside with her in death in recognition of our common ancestry.”

With this bit of histrionics Metzer stepped into the device, stretched his naked body to its utmost height, threw back his shoulders and fixed upon his face a very stern, resolute look full of purpose and noble feeling.  Two technicians came forward and lay the steel door in place, obscuring all but Metzer’s eyes, which remained visible through a small, circular window.  The entire team, including secondary support staff and board members – some thirty people – had crammed into the tiny room and waited silently as Lincoln manned the control console.  A low, resonate hum reverberated through the floor and walls as she activated the device.  For several minutes Metzer’s eyes were visible through the window, occasionally blinking and even wincing, but eventually they disappeared behind a think layer of condensation.

The twenty-eight minutes passed slowly.  Friedman occasionally glanced over at Lincoln, whose gaze remain fixed on the various readouts of the console.  The machine finally powered down and left the room’s occupants in silent apprehension.

“Remove the door,” Friedman ordered.

The men stepped forward and worked the heavy levers to release the hatch. There, slumped unconscious in the restraints, lay what was once Metzer. Still humanoid in appearance, his body now gleamed with sapphire luminescence, like a crystal under black light.

“My god,” said Lincoln, “he’s beautiful.”

“Let’s get to work,” said Friedman.

 ***

            They placed Metzer’s body on a stretcher and wheeled him down the hall to a makeshift medical facility. A team of university doctors stood waiting and began probing him immediately, assessing vital signs and searching for anatomical abnormalities.

Supervising from the doorway, Friedman observed that Metzer’s now transparent skin revealed an internal mass located in his chest cavity, a cluster of organs, apparently. This core emitted a blue-tinted glow that radiated throughout his bodily extremities. Apart from this obvious mutation, Metzer appeared quite human. Though younger, healthier looking, he still retained identical facial features and was easily recognizable as the obdurate dean of biology.

As the medical team worked, Friedman anxiously considered the possible outcomes. Would Metzer’s mind remain intact? Would he recognize the team, speak English? Would he demonstrate superior cognitive abilities? More urgently, would he regain consciousness?

Friedman turned away from the medical team. He felt exhausted, too tired to learn the answers to his questions. He met Lincoln in the hallway.

“Tell me when he comes around,” he said before making his way to his office, away from the excitement.

***

            “Lewis, wake up.”

Friedman opened his eyes, surveyed the room. He had drifted to sleep in his desk chair. It was dark, but he recognized Lincoln’s voice.

“Wake up,” she repeated. “He’s conscious and, wouldn’t you believe it, still every bit the old Metzer.”

They walked to the staff kitchen where Metzer, now dressed and standing upright and alert, was addressing the team.

“I assure you,” he said, “I feel fantastic. Far better than before, actually.”

Friedman approached him cautiously, passing through the small crowd to within an arm’s reach of Metzer.

“Ah, Lewis!” said Metzer. “You’ve come at last. Look at me, I’m radiant.”

“So you are, Charles,” said Friedman. “You’ve managed to survive. What’s the verdict, doctors?”

“Well, he’s hardly one of us,” said Doctor Lisa Knowles, an internist, “but he appears healthy. His entire circulatory, nervous and digestive systems are contained in that single, visible organ. We’re still running tests, but initial results suggest outstanding cognition and physical strength and stamina.”

“So you are what we can all expect to be in 6 million years, give or take,” said Friedman.

“You wouldn’t believe how easily everything comes to me now,” said Metzer. “I’ve just ran through a series of tests with Dr. Hasler from the math department. I’m quite proficient in algebraic geometry. And I smelt you coming down the hall.”

“It’s true,” said Hasler. “Olfactory perception is through the roof. He evinces a host of new fitness-enhancing attributes. I think his skin may even possess photosynthetic properties.”

“Well, we have two weeks to thoroughly evaluate you,” said Lincoln. “Until then, don’t speak to anyone outside of this room.”

“Nonsense,” said Metzer. “I’m ready now. Whatever the test results reveal, it’s clear that our trial has been a success. Why wait?”

Lincoln turned to Friedman.

“Fine,” Friedman said. “Setup a meeting with the public.”

He didn’t care anymore about rushing headlong into uncertainty. All of his fears over Metzer’s overzealous enthusiasm had been misplaced. He’d been wrong, and he wasn’t about to expend any more energy proving it.

***

            “Ladies and gentleman,” Lincoln began, “thank you for joining us this afternoon. The Center for Biological Advancement is pleased to bring you the results of our first human trial.”

Lincoln stood at the podium before an audience of over a thousand scientists, scholars, media persons, politicians and clergy. Metzer and the board had selected the largest of the city’s civic auditoriums for the event and nominated Lincoln as emcee. Friedman sat in a position of honor in the front row beside Metzer. As Lincoln continued with her opening statements, he mused over the newly adopted title of their research endeavor, the “Center for Biological Advancement.” To him, it sounded like the name of a cosmetic company.

Metzer fidgeted anxiously beside him. He was eager to take center stage, to bask in his new acclaim. This moment vindicated not only his ambition as a biologist but also science’s unfettered capacity for progress. Metzer was proof that humankind could successfully harness this unspeakable potential and bend it to their will. He had become a living emblem, Friedman realized, of humankind’s commitment to self-determination and its passion for improvement.

Metzer would have to wait a few moments longer before redeeming his prize, however. The program for the evening included a detailed exposition of Metzer’s metamorphosis, including video playback of the trial’s proceedings. As Lincoln stepped away from the podium, the lights dimmed and a giant screen behind her lit up with scenes from the laboratory. Metzer inhaled sharply with delight upon seeing his pre-trial self in the video footage. Throughout the ten minutes of film preceding the commencement of the trial, Metzer’s face beamed with pride and he issued occasional audible expressions of approval. Friedman sat numbly, recounting the early days of research that had led to this moment.

“What’s this?” said Metzer, rather too loudly.

Friedman turned toward him, startled from his reverie. Metzer was frowning at the screen; he looked baffled.

“What is this?” he repeated, now much more loudly than was appropriate for the setting.

“What’s the matter?” Friedman whispered. He sat up straight in his seat, growing concerned. Metzer’s countenance worried him. He leaned in toward Metzer and said, “It’s just the film, Charles. You’ll go up there in a second.”

“I don’t understand it, none of it,” Metzer said without attempting to control his voice. He was attracting attention, now. Friedman could see audience members craning their necks to identify the cause of the disturbance.

“Don’t understand what, Charles?” Friedman said through his teeth. These theatrics were unbearable, and just like Metzer.

“What am I saying? I know the words, but they don’t make sense. What am I saying?” Metzer shouted, his eyes fixed on the video. He was now in a state of panic; his face contorted in confused terror. The audience around them buzzed with murmurs.

Friedman looked back up at the screen. There was the old Metzer, moments before stepping into the machine, reciting Wordsworth:

“Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!

Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought

That givest to forms and images a breath

And everlasting motion, not in vain

By day or star-light thus from my first dawn

Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me

The passions that build up our human soul;

Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,

But with high objects, with enduring things–

With life and nature–purifying thus

The elements of feeling and of thought,

And sanctifying, by such discipline,

Both pain and fear, until we recognise

A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.”

            “It’s just the poem…” Friedman started, but Metzer broke him off.

“I never said that, it’s nonsense. Turn it off at once!” he cried wildly. He was standing, now, and pointing angrily at the screen.

Lincoln came down from the side of the stage. “What’s the problem?” she hissed. “Charles, sit down, now!”

“We need help,” said Friedman. “Grab security. We need to get him out of here.”

Friedman managed to sit Metzer down until several security guards and a university doctor arrived. Together they escorted him backstage and began to calm him down. Lincoln and Friedman stepped outside to discuss the situation.

“Dr. Sterling is up on stage stalling,” said Friedman. “We’ll just have to proceed without Metzer.”

“What’s happened to him? He’s hysterical,” said Lincoln.

“Sara, he doesn’t understand the poem. He’s poem-deaf, poem-blind, whatever. He’s lost his poetic sensibilities. Watching the film, he couldn’t understand what he was saying and just lost it.

Lincoln thought for a moment, started to speak, but stopped short. Finally, she said, “So that’s where we’re all headed as a species, then. I suppose poetry never had all that much going for it in terms of survival advantages, did it?”

“What are we going to do?” said Friedman.

Lincoln was less introspective, more pragmatic than Friedman. “We tell them what they need to know, highlight the good news and downplay the bad. It doesn’t matter much, anyway. It won’t affect anyone now living.”

The two of them stood silently a moment. Then, as if on cue, the bell tower across town chimed, and turning toward the horizon Friedman could just make out the position of the giant hands on the worn clock face.

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